"Writing The Perfect Riff Part I"

Jordan Warford here, Editorial Manager for Guitar Tips.

Thanks for tuning in to this week's edition of our Guitar Tips newsletter. Have you ever heard a song that you simply cannot get out of your head? Perhaps there's that little tune that keeps playing around in your mind. These little segments of songs are what guitarists call riffs and they will be our main focus for the next few weeks.

In this edition:

Join us as we take a look at how you can write original riffs that keep your audience coming back for more. We'll tell you the steps that will bring your playing skills and creativity to a new level.

I urge all of you to read it as there is a correction on our last article that you need to know about.

Without further a due, let's get started!

Using What You Have

Take the tools out of your tool box.

In the guitar world there is a lot of competition to be original. If you are a guitarist in a band, the most frustrating obstacle you will face is finding the songs that will set you apart from all the rest. Putting aside all of the rules for writing music, the one thing that will give you a song that your audience will remember is having a few awesome riffs.

A riff is simply a short, repeatable line of music that sticks out from everything else in the song. You can look at a riff as a signature on a piece of paper... it identifies the piece of music.

You may be thinking, "This sounds great, but I don't have the ability to think outside of the box like that." The truth of the matter is that anyone can write an awesome riff.

The music industry wants you to think that you can't sound as good as all of your favorite bands. Yes, many of them do have awesome material, but the majority of it does not require a music degree to write. You can use the tools you already have to write original and breathtaking lines that will blow your audience away.

In fact, some of you would do better than your favorite bands if you took the time to evaluate the tools you already have.

A perfect example of this is using the scale patterns covered in our last lesson. Within those scale patterns are hundreds of riffs waiting to be discovered. Simply taking the most basic of techniques, such as bends, hammer on's, and pull off's will give you are great variety of options.

If you were a carpenter, would you go to work without insuring that you had all of the tools you needed to complete that day's work? No. You would double check to make sure you had everything you needed. The same applies to writing music and riffs. Take a step back and ask yourself, "What do I do best?"

If you can slide around the neck of your guitar like it's nobody's business, than use that to your advantage when writing riffs. Likewise, if you have fast fingers, use that to help you develop your own style.

My one warning that comes with all of the above advice is to keep it short. The longer your riff is, the more likely your audience will forget how it goes. Even I forget the tune to some of the longer riffs I write, so how do you expect anyone else to remember the tune? The most famous songs of the last six decades were all ridiculously simple and easy to remember.

Taking your first steps.

Before you dive into anything involving riffs, there are a few simple but important steps you have to think about. These steps lay the foundation for success and will make playing your guitar far more enjoyable.

  • Choose a key. We all love to run to our guitars and play them until we get something that sounds good. The problem with this is we will reach a point where we don't know what to do with it or what notes to play. Knowing what key you are in will solve these problems instantly. This also allows you to figure out all of the various scales you have available to you.
  • Run through the scales you know in that key. Try the major and minor scales and see what sound you like the best. If you don't know what scales are avalable to you in a certain key, check out last week's article.
  • Experiment using the techniques that you know. Try limiting the number of notes that you play and keep it simple.
  • Use both the lower and higher notes on your neck.

...Try the above and you'll be well on your way to creating a solid riff.

The hook.

The hook is the riff that highlights the chorus. It's the most important tune you will write throughout the entire song. It also sounds slightly different from your average riff in the sense that it has the characteristics of a melody.

What that means when translated is that it stands out like a vocal would stand out. The key to writing a hook is to make it repeatable. That's why I like to use a few notes. You can use as many as you want, but it may become more complicated than you would like it to be.

Here is an example of a simple hook in the key of D:

...It's simple and it's catchy. All of the things you want to look for in a riff and the hook for your song. The word hook in the above context literally means to hook your audience into the music.

Many times you can spice up a riff dramatically by adding in new rhythms and picking patterns, as seen in our above example.

If we took the above riff and added more to it, we would end up with a melody (something you could sing to). This defeats the purpose of a riff. While writing melodies is quite fun and very necessary in song writing, it's not what you want when writing riffs.


Here are a few riffs to get you started. Enjoy!

Feedback Booth

Over the past two weeks many of you have taken the time to write in with your questions and concerns. Here is a sample of the many awesome emails we have received over the past two weeks.

Charith writes to us with this great testimonial and question:

"Hey Jordan,

It's quite a good program that you conduct. By the time I started these lessons I had no idea about notes on the fret board of guitar. Now I'm playing lead guitarist in band. I thank you as I grab so much from the lessons. I like to play classical guitar mostly. Can you please help to play long solos just like Paco De Lucia, Ivan Smirnov? I have observed that when they play long solos they used to play the same notes in the scales. Starting from one end and move fingers so fast and ends it. I think they are playing chromatic or pentatonic scales in flamenco. Can you help me to play this flamenco style of solos?


Thank you for your encouraging words. We can certainly help you with this style of music. The first step involves learning some of the many scales you have available to you as a guitarist. The second step is learning to play them fast. You can look forward to future lessons on these topics. For lessons on scales you can refer back to previous lessons in our archive.

"Hi Jordan (or should I say Gidday!) I've been reading your latest Guitar Tips Free Newsletter about pentatonic scale patterns and I have a query regarding scale #1. If this is a 'C' scale as you suggest it should not contain any sharps or flats. The pattern you have shown has Eb,Ab and Bb on the eleventh frets of the E,A,B and E strings. Maybe I'm wrong but let me know what you think. I read the Guitar Tips Newsletter every time it arrives - keep up the good work! Anthony Wenger"

My apologies for the confusion. We received a few emails revolving around our past lesson. There were some typos with the lesson that could have easily mislead you. I was thinking in terms of a different scale pattern when I wrote it. You are correct, as are the rest of you, that there should not be any sharps or flats in the key of C.

The correction has been made on the previous lesson and I encourage you to all re-read it for clarification as the patterns have changed and you have not read the correct information.

When I speak of the key of C, I'm also referring to its relative minor, which in this case was Am. Theoretically speaking, the proper term for the series of scale pattern I gave you is based off of the key of Am (which is the key of C). Both have the same key signature but different patterns. The relative minor is found by taking the 6th (Submediant) note of the major scale you are working with.

My sincere apologies for this overlooked mistake and I thank all of you who notified us about it. We all make mistakes and I had my major mistake in the last lesson. To check it out for clarification incase you have learned it improperly, click here.

Philip sends us this feedback regarding our last site review:

"Hey Jordan, Thank you very much for your newsletter. Using the entire fretborad when soloing is very useful to me. I want to know about the "Tremolo picking and Palm Muting" Everything in the Free Guitar Videos is very interesting and answers my questions and doubts. Philip Abraham"

Denver has this quick question for clarification:

"Hi Jordan, Thank you very much for the latest Newsletter. Just a question. On the Tab there are SEVEN parallel lines, and not SIX representing the strings of the Guitar. Do I ignore the lowest line (line seven) and work from the sixth line upwards. My main interest is in Country, some of the new stuff foxes me. Maybe I am too old at 73 years to try the more nimble stuff. Ha! Ha! Thanks again. Regards, Denver"

Ignore the bottom line, it was used for neatness. It has been removed from all of our tabs to keep things simple.

If you have any thoughts or suggestions, feel free to send us an email!


That concludes another edition of our Guitar Tips newsletter. We hope that you have enjoyed this article and learned something new. Whether you are an advanced guitarist or a beginner, there are always new riffs waiting to be discovered.

Join us next week as we look at building chord progressions to solo over using the riffs you write. You won't want to miss out on it.

Until next time, keep on rocking!


If you've always wanted to learn to play the guitar but never had the chance, give me 17 minutes a day for 90 days and I'll show you how to play virtually any song you want! Visit http://www.guitartips.com.au